It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Hard to believe because that album’s elegant anxiety is as relevant as ever. Hard to believe also because Wilco hasn’t fully eclipsed YHF’s classic shadow. Wilco’s past decade has hardly been disappointing; yet accusations of decline continue to dog. Jeff Tweedy has famously loosened up—lyrically, emotionally, musically—and that loosening has allowed for a lot of lazy, comfortable songwriting, as well as some transcendent moments of open space. And each new Wilco record seems to come with one or two songs of brilliant disquiet that punctuate an otherwise placid landscape. I must have listened to “Bull Black Nova,” off the most recent Wilco (The Album) a thousand times, but I’d rather believe the Feist-featuring lullaby “You and I” doesn’t exist.
So Wilco have become your make-of-them-what-you-will, past-their-prime yet still-enjoyable indie rock headliners, right? Maybe so, and maybe not. The Whole Love shows that Tweedy and company still have some fight left in them, that the door from relevance to retirement isn’t completely closed.
The Whole Love opens auspiciously, with a cough of static, a Kraut-rock groove, and an orchestral swoon. “Art of Almost” seems to speak directly to the soured Wilco former-fanatic, saying, “We are Wilco. Remember us? We are experimental. Take us seriously!” Seven minutes later, after some edgy Tweedy verses, a spiraling Nels Kline solo, and a blast of double-timed noise, Wilco have proved, if only by sheer energy, that the prospect of slowing down and mellowing out still offends them. The rest of the album follows the opener’s restless template. The Whole Love is probably Wilco’s most sonically diverse album since Summerteeth, and for that reason alone, it will probably bring back a lot of listeners who were bored by the band’s recent exercises in tranquility.
There’s a lot to be excited by here. “Dawned on Me” is a propulsive power-pop earworm, combining the charms of “War on War” and “Can’t Stand It.” “Black Moon” is a stirring, eerie ballad, hinting at some larger explosion that never comes; Tweedy’s decision to avoid the expected move is a reminder of YHF’s genius pop curveballs. “I Might” and “Standing O” are both taught, crisp rockers that want to be blasted from car stereo speakers. “Born Alone” may be the best example of what’s great about The Whole Love. It starts out with a blissful, crystal clear riff circa “Impossible Germany” or “You Never Know.” But unlike on those songs, Wilco isn’t satisfied to leave “Born Alone” as a by-the-book, Starbucks-appropriate indie-rock song. Instead they dress it up with a screeching, proggy middle section and a slightly disturbing, scale-descending outro.
The Whole Love isn’t without its disappointments, however. There’s no Feist duet, thankfully, but what to make of album closer, “One Sunday Morning,” a whispery twelve-minute opus skating around the same, dreary acoustic riff? And the chirpy, annoying “Capitol City” is a dad-with-a-fannypack song in the same way that Sky Blue Sky’s regrettable “Hate It Here” was a dad-with-a-vacuum song. Tweedy may have minimized his tendency to coast, but he hasn’t eliminated it altogether.
Even if it has more awesome moments than its predecessors, The Whole Love is similar to Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) in that it doesn’t do enough to challenge the conception of what Wilco is. From AM to A Ghost Is Born, the idea of Wilco constantly evolved, what with the frequent changing of the band’s personnel and Jeff Tweedy’s shifting artistic eye. The Whole Love has the band giving more than in the recent past, but the combustible musical debate at the band’s core seems largely to have ceased. Wilco may still have the ability to thrill, but they’ve lost the ability to surprise.